The Tatra Museum was set up in 1888 by a group of friends of Dr Tytus Chałubiński (1820-1889) to celebrate him as the discoverer of the values of Zakopane as a health resort. Dr Tytus Chałubiński was an outstanding Warsaw physician, scientist and social activist, a great admirer of the Tatra Mountains and the folklore of the local people. The Tatra Museum Society (Towarzystwo Muzeum Tatrzańskiego - TMT) was set up to raise money and further the development of the museum. The first exhibition was held in a now non-existent building on Krupówki Street, which was rented by the Society. The earliest holdings, covering the fields of botany, geology, zoology and ethnography, plus a library, resulted from donations and the purchases of entire private collections.
Some collections in the Podhale region were made accessible to the public even before the foundation of the Tatra Museum. In the 1860s, the then few tourists could see a collection of Tatra birds and mammals put on display by the Zakopane landowner, Edward Homolacs. In 1876, the Tatra Society made the first steps towards setting up a 'Tatra museum'. The earliest local private collections of folk arts and crafts came into being in the 1880s. Collectors of ethnographic items included Countess Róża Raczyńska née Potocka, Bronisław and Maria Dembowski, and Zygmunt Gnatowski, all of them spent part of each year in Zakopane due to their interest in the Podhale region. Their collections were later incorporated with the Tatra Museum.
In 1892 a museum building, designed by Warsaw architect Józef Pius Dziekoński, was built on the Society's initiative, which was made possible thanks to a donation to the Society from the heirs of Dr Tytus Chałubiński. The collection was transferred to the new museum building on Chałubińskiego street in the same year. During the late 19th/early 20th century the Museum Society encountered financial problems due to the decline in membership and the high cost of the new Museum building. In 1900 the press criticized the Museum and especially its ethnographic department for the haphazard choice and unimaginative display of exhibits.